Near the turn of the 17th century, anatomists discovered a blanket of fibrous material around the human brain, named the “arachnoid” for its likeness to a cobweb. Picture the creature that wove that web, scuttling between bone and grey matter. Can you feel its feet, tickling the roof of your skull?
The thought of a spider alone is an invasion. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, they “infect our knowledge” even as they contaminate our dwellings, turning the unguarded corners of buildings into boltholes and traps. It’s perhaps this capacity to infest, rather than an inherited fear of the spider’s shape, that makes them unnerving. Spiders scare the shit out of us because, for all our walls, we can’t quite draw clean lines between ourselves and them.
Spiders abound as video game enemies, but they seldom feel like spiders. Eight-legged bodies are tricky to animate even when they aren’t roaming the ceiling, and game design’s emphasis on easy-to-read distinctions – safe/unsafe area, right/wrong path – is anathema to creatures that sneak through barriers and colonise crevices unseen. Spiders in the likes of Star Wars Jedi: The Fallen Order or The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim are closer to Dodgem cars, butting and barging. They might jump and dribble poison, but they don’t infect your reality as a spider should. This article is about one that does. Here’s a little teaser. Can you see it? Look, there it goes. It’s waiting for you.
In Crytek’s putrid online shooter Hunt: Showdown, the spider is the twitching, hairy heart of a world where insects have become vectors for demonic possession. Up to 12 players – adventuring alone or in twos and threes – comb a blighted Louisiana bayou for a legendary monster, fighting each other tooth-and-nail for the privilege of slaughtering it. There are several potential “boss” lairs in each match, ranging from collapsing churches to abandoned mills and slaughterhouses. Hunters must investigate them, one by one, crossing off map regions till they finally bring their quarry to bay.
There are other horrors to contend with along the way – every unfortunate resident of the bayou has undergone a hellish mutation – but the boss is, of course, the greater ordeal. If you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself battling the Butcher, a hook-handed, flame-wielding ogre with the head of a pig. The Butcher is a formidable foe, requiring an inordinate amount of raw firepower, but it’s also huge, slow and well-lit. You’ll always see it coming. The spider, by contrast, is rarely visible till it’s right on top of you.
Hunt’s in-game bestiary describes the spider as “fast and agile”, which a) is quite the understatement, and b) skims over how the creature uses architecture against the hunter, as you stumble around in the cluttered gloom of each multiple-storey lair. “A spider needs to walk on walls and ceilings,” lead game designer Dennis Schwarz tells us. “It needs cracks and slits so it can creep from one level to another, where you cannot follow.
“That empowers the spider, because it’s a hit-and-run enemy – it takes a stab at you, then withdraws into safety. The lair is its home. It knows the corners, while you are just there to visit. The thing retreating somewhere you can’t access makes you feel very vulnerable. It’s like you’re in an Aliens movie. It can come from anywhere, and all of a sudden Pete is gone, Mike is gone.”
As with many video game adversaries, the spider’s tactics and range of motion were thrashed out in advance of its visual design, which is based loosely on tarantulas and jumping spiders. “You start with prototyping, right?” Schwarz goes on. “And that can be as simple as an untextured box moving on the ceiling.
“There is no model, there are no animations, it’s to test behaviour. How does the box need to move, and how will players respond to it? Obviously, that’s far from being a scary enemy, but it gives you a good idea of what the gameplay can be.” Only once it had taught the box to act and react in an appropriately nimble fashion did Crytek give it legs, fangs and a range of delightful mouth and footstep noises. These sounds are further warped by the building’s material composition – they give you some sense of where your adversary is, but this is generally more harrowing than helpful.
“You can really only ever see that coming together on the last stretch, when all of these elements are in place, that’s when you see your enemy,” Schwarz says. “It’s so important to have designers that can hold a picture in their head, and work towards that even without being able to show it to anyone.” There are plenty of arachnophobes working on the game, he adds. “We had quite a lot of screams in the office during development.”
The spider’s dexterity is horrendous: it can move between vertical and horizontal in the blink of an eye. But more horrifying still is the thought that you are, in a way, trespassing upon its brain. Spiders and their webs are popular among advocates of “extended cognition”, a theory of mind which holds that we “off-load” thinking to external objects, such as shopping lists. We do not think and then act upon the environment, so the theory goes. Rather we think with it. Spider webs are an exquisite illustration of this: extruded from the spider’s own abdomen, they serve as both a sensing instrument and a way of storing information, each section meaning something different to the weaver.
We can liken the spider’s web as an extension of the spider’s thoughts to the “navigation mesh”, a popular tool in game development. Read: an invisible carpet draped across the world to indicate whether an entity can move somewhere. By simplifying that world into surfaces that can or can’t be traversed, the navmesh allows the AI-controlled denizens of 3D landscapes to navigate quickly and without sponging up too much computing power. In Hunt: Showdown, the navmesh stops the spider leaving its lair (having players duke it out over bosses in the open would have led to frustrating stand-offs, Schwarz notes), with “height spots” indicating where it can position itself on walls.
The spider’s behaviour is “built into” its environment, much like a real spider thinks with its web. It’s this entwining of spider and lair that makes it so terrifyingly elusive – dropping through a crack as you aim your shotgun, scurrying along the ceiling, beneath your feet and popping up behind you. The creature is also programmed to sense you within the building even when it can’t see you, as though tracing vibrations through woodwork. “It understands where there’s a safe spot, and it knows where the players are,” Schwarz says. “It tries to detect in advance whether players will be visible from a position, and whether this is a good place to linger before it dashes out again.”
Another game developer might object that there’s nothing remarkable about Hunt’s interweaving of creature with lair. It’s essential to how “intelligence” is defined in such simulations, where every individual entity is designed around the others. But by introducing the figure of an arachnid, Hunt’s creators have turned something commonplace about game creation into something sinister. The humble navmesh, here, is an apparatus of entrapment which somehow places you inside the alien mind of the creature you’re hunting.
This blurring of arachnid brain with lair obviously speaks to Hunt’s themes of infestation and transformation. Completing matches gives you points to spend on mutations for your character’s “bloodline”, such as a bestial visage that makes hostile animals take less notice of you. Winning a round, meanwhile, requires you to assume the role of the monster – albeit in a much subtler fashion.
After slaying it you must perform a two-minute banishing ritual, during which your location is flagged up for all other players. The lair thus becomes your lair. And in the process, the bayou also reveals itself as a larger web – one enormous, intricate alarm system, made up of dozens of player-triggered ambient effects such as crows taking flight, the whinnying of injured horses and the roars of pursuing mutants. In using those sights and sounds to detect unseen rivals, you become something like a spider. Put another way: Hunt doesn’t merely tantalise you with the idea of blurring boundaries, it makes you participate in this blurring to succeed.
There’s one final twist to the tale. Between the darkness, the spider’s awful dexterity and its sensitivity to the player’s line of sight, you’ll seldom get a leisurely look at the creature. It is more motion than form, a nightmare stitched together from dozens of frenzied after-images. Blast it into submission, and you’ll have a few moments before the revolting body flakes away to assess it as a whole.
Hunt’s theme of mutation applies to the boss monsters, too. Is this spider altogether a spider? Peer between its mandibles and you’ll see something, jutting from the pink-brown chitin as though half-devoured or half-born. Meeting your gaze, like the world’s queasiest memento mori: the remnants of a human head.